The new National Premier League has the capacity to change our game for the better – but there are still areas of the plan that need improving.
The recent FFA announcement regarding the National Premier League has caused much comment and debate.
Let-s examine this proposal and look at some of the pros and cons of the planned changes.
Firstly, we need to acknowledge and understand that one of the main reasons Brisbane are no longer in the AFC Champions League (apart from their inability to score penalties) is because the AFC deem our 10-team competition, with only nine teams eligible to qualify for Asia (sorry, Wellington) and no promotion or relegation, to be insufficiently developed to justify two full spots.
To put this in context, Japan, South Korea China, Saudi Arabia and Qatar get four spots, and UAE has two automatic spots, whereas we are ranked alongside Thailand and Uzbekistan with only one-and-a-half spots.
Clearly there is a disparity between the relatively lofty position our national team enjoys (currently ranked second in Asia behind Japan) and our national club competition.
With the 2015 Asian Cup on the way to Australia, our lobbying efforts to re-instate our Asian spots for the ACL will be ramped up, and these moves to strengthen our national competition are certainly an important part of that.
As a state league coach myself, I have an insight into some of the concerns the clubs may have. The major gripe I hear around the traps regards the points system that is being proposed to apply to state league clubs. This is designed to operate in such a way as to limit the number of older, experienced players in a squad to encourage younger players to be given an opportunity.
No one can argue with the good intent of the scheme but it needs to be flexible enough not to prematurely end the careers of footballers who can be invaluable role models and leaders around clubs. Guys such as Matthew Kemp and Roddy Vargas have decided to play for state league clubs after their A-League careers ended, and the system needs to allow for these guys to remain playing as long as fitness allows them.
From personal experience, I can tell you that the positive impact of having someone like Kempy around a dressing room full of young players at state league level is hard to overstate. To see how a former Socceroo conducts himself on the training pitch and on match day is an experience that no amount of textbook learning or youth football can replicate.
It would be counter-productive if the points system was weighted in such a way as to discriminate against these guys who have given so much to the game and can still offer so much more.
Furthermore, I am a firm believer that a crucial part of a club-s fabric is its history. Some players in their 30s may have been at a club since their teens. Surely some sort of exemption should apply to these players too, rather than force them out because their seniority has somehow now made them too difficult to keep under the points system.
I would like to see a “one-club man” exemption or something along those lines so that players can end their careers where they started them.
I do agree that too many ordinary older players are preventing younger players from coning through though – I just think that this needs to be balanced with the considerations I outlined above.
I also think that the trend of European backpackers, mostly UK or Irish, with lower league or non-league experience coming to play in the state leagues needs to be monitored. Again, there is a good argument that a foreign player can help the younger playing group develop, but the number of non-Australian/NZ players should be limited to one per team to stop the influx of average foreigners taking spots of local talent.
The proposal regarding each club having a qualified technical director is another good idea. Indeed this is something many A-League clubs could benefit from. Long-term plans need to be put in place regarding a club-s philosophy, which cannot be thrown out of the window just because the coach has changed.
Regarding the mooted promotion-and-relegation model that many people are discussing, we need to mindful of the fact that many A-League clubs would simply go bust overnight if they were relegated. The withdrawal of sponsors, lack of TV money and inconsistent attendances, combined with being saddled with A-League wages for B-League players, would be a fatal combination.
So how does this work in other countries? Well, in the UK it is simple. Relegated EPL teams are given a “balloon” payment to soften the blow and help them meet the wages that they may still be obligated to pay in the Championship to players still on Premier League-type contracts. It is basically a bridging payment to ensure a smooth transition and to avoid a boom-and-bust model from developing.
But we cannot do that here because the FFA can-t afford to make any such payments, not in any meaningful way anyway. The TV revenue, although now greater than ever, is still not yet at a point where it acts as the panacea for all problems.
So is there a middle ground? I think so. I would like to see the top teams from each state league qualifying for a National Premier League (the “B-League”?) that runs in the state league off-season, which would sit alongside the regular A-League season. There could be maybe 10 teams in the league, which would mean maybe or nine inter-state trips – not an insurmountable financial obstacle to state league clubs who would rally around to fund the venture. Perhaps a free-to-air component of this league is not unrealistic, and perhaps some decent prize money too?
This B-League would also provide an opportunity for state league players to make an impression on watching A-League clubs. One issue that A-League clubs have now when looking at potential replacement players is that state league players are usually off-season and not fit enough to come into an A-League squad mid-season. The B-League could change that.
I t would also give players a greater incentive to play for their state league teams rather than dollars alone. Fringe A-League players could maybe be loaned to B-League teams for first-team experience and game time in an environment a step above normal state league level.
Combined with an FFA Cup model, this would really invigorate the grassroots level of football, the lifeblood of the sport in this country.